A major player in several of the most acclaimed groups of the late 1960s and 1970s, Stephen Stills was a singer, songwriter and guitarist who helped form the backbone of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN) while also enjoying a successful career as a solo artist. Steeped in Latin music as a child, Stills brought palpable grit to both groups, as well as some of their greatest hits, including Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" for Crosby, Stills & Nash. His on-again, off-again relationship with his (CS&N) bandmates, as well as former Springfield member Neil Young, who occasionally joined the supergroup, was the stuff of rock legend during the 1970s due to personality clashes and struggles with substance abuse. But they remained a popular live act well into the new millennium, where they continued to expound the core humanistic values that put them at the forefront of the Woodstock Nation in the late 1960s. Stills' countless contributions to popular music, both with his groups as well as on his own, ensured his status as one of rock's most respected players.
Stephen Arthur Stills was born on Jan. 3, 1945 in Dallas, TX. His father, William "Otie" Stills, was a jack-of-all-trades, frequently uprooting his family in search of new employment. As a result, Stills spent much of his early years moving throughout the South, where he developed a love for the blues and Latin music through stints in Costa Rica, the Panama Canal Zone and El Salvador. He soon learned to play piano and guitar, despite having significant hearing loss in his right ear. After graduating from high school, he briefly attended Louisiana State University, but dropped out to pursue a career in music. Like his father, he became something of an itinerant player, performing as a solo folk artist while lending his guitar talents to a variety of bands, including the Continentals, which featured future Eagles member Don Felder.
In the mid-'60s, Stills was part of the Au Go Go Singers, a vocal group that held a residency at the famed Café Au Go Go. The group broke up in 1965, leading Stills to form a folk-rock band with several fellow former members called The Company. While touring with The Company through Canada, Stills befriended Neil Young, a member of their opening act, The Squires. The Company broke up soon after the Canadian tour, and Stills traveled to Massachusetts to convince another former Au Go Go Singer, Richie Furay, to try their hand at the West Coast music scene. While in Los Angeles, Stills played on various recording sessions and auditioned for a variety of projects, including a spot as one of the Monkees. Though he failed to make the band, he recommended a friend, Peter Tork, to try out for the group, which launched his career as a teen idol.
Stills eventually reunited with Young to form a folk-rock group with country leanings that also featured Furay, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin. Initially dubbed The Herd, they changed their name to Buffalo Springfield and scored a major hit with the Stills-penned single, "For What It's Worth." Stills also found success with an early Springfield song, "Sit Down, I Think I Love You," which was a hit for the Mojo Men in 1967. Bad management and personality clashes, exacerbated by drug use, led to Buffalo Springfield's demise in 1968. After being briefly considered to play bass for his friend, Jimi Hendrix, Stills teamed with esteemed sidemen Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield to release Super Session (1968), a loose collection of blues jams that scored with rock listeners. The notion of three powerhouse players in a band struck a chord with Stills, who had befriended ex-Byrds singer David Crosby. When Hollies singer Graham Nash visited Los Angeles, he joined Stills and Crosby in an informal rendition of Stills' "You Don't Have to Cry." Their flawless harmonies spurred the trio to form their own group, Crosby, Stills & Nash, which released their Grammy-winning, eponymous debut album in 1969. A sizable hit upon its release, it featured one of Stills' signature songs, the by-turns baroque and joyful "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," which was inspired by his on-again, off-again relationship with folk singer Judy Collins.
After making their live debut at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, Crosby, Stills & Nash soon became one of the leading acts of the '60s counterculture movement, a sort of apotheosis of the folk, country, psychedelic and rock scenes' deepest ambitions as filtered through gorgeous three-part harmony and Stills' ace guitar work. In 1970, they invited Neil Young to join the group to bring a deeper sense of electric grit to their live shows. The newfound quartet released Déjà Vu that year, and launched an ambitious tour. The jaunt nearly proved to be the group's undoing under the weight of conflicting personalities and extravagant drug use. All four members immediately launched solo projects upon the completion of the tour. Stills' eponymous effort featured an all-star lineup of guests, including Hendrix, an uncredited Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton, as well as contributions from Crosby and Nash. Its single, "Love the One You're With," broke the Top 20, and became a staple of Stills' solo live sets and performances with Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Stills soon released Stephen Stills 2 (1971), which echoed the same success as its predecessor. He attempted to launch a new group, Manassas, with Chris Hillman of The Byrds, but its two releases - beginning with its self-titled album in 1972 - were only modest hits. In 1974, he reunited with Crosby, Nash and Young for a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tour, which generated interest in a new album. However, the 1976 sessions were torpedoed when Crosby and Nash left to complete touring and recording obligations as their own duo, Crosby-Nash. Stills and Young responded by wiping their vocals from the proposed album, titled Long May You Run and released it under the Stills-Young Band moniker. This decision created a rift between the four members that appeared to signal the end of the quartet. The resulting Stills-Young tour was fraught with problems, including Young's departure due to a throat infection, and Stills' divorce from his wife, singer-songwriter Veronique Sanson.
To the surprise of many fans and industry members, Stills reunited with Crosby and Nash in 1977. Peace between the trio was facilitated by Nash's wife, and a new album, CSN, sold four million copies on the strength of Nash's delicate, wistful "Just a Song Before I Go." Crosby, Stills & Nash would remain intact for the better part of the next two decades, with Young joining on several occasions beginning in 1988. Though they remained an exceptionally popular live act, Crosby, Stills & Nash's record sales began to falter, as did Stills' solo releases. His last album to break the Billboard 200 charts was 1984's Right by You, though he would continue to produce new records on a sporadic basis over the next few decades.
In 1997, Stills was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work with both Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash. He was the first artist to be inducted into the Hall twice in the same night. He remained busy throughout the '90s and the new millennium with projects with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, which was revived by the release of their stripped-down 2000 album, Looking Forward, which spawned hugely successful tours. Stills also continued to support liberal causes as he had done throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including a stint as one of the Democratic credentials committee at the 2000 Democratic Convention. In 2006, Crosby, Stills & Nash were honored with an Icon Award from BMI music publishing, but the winning streak was tempered in 2007 when Graham Nash announced on "Larry King Live" (CNN, 1984-2010) that Stills had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent surgery on his birthday in 2007 and later stated that the operation was a success.
By Paul Gaita